Say what you will about Van Halen. but they understand the intrinsic value of a good shake-up far better than most rock bands. Nothing beats a bit of public bickering and backbiting for keeping your name in the press and your fans talking, and Van Halen have got the formula down: Once a decade, have a terminal falling out with your frontman, who, amid much bitterness and recrimination, storms off to pursue a doomed solo career, leaving the band to reinvent itself. David Lee Roth jumped ship in '85; his replacement, Sammy Hagar, split in '96; and now Gary Cherone, former singer with Boston art-metal bozos Extreme, finds himself in the hot seat. (Budding rock singers are advised to set their sights on 2007, when, if events run true to form, Cherone should be joining that most exclusive of clubs, the League of Ex-Van Halen singers.)
The new guy makes his highly anticipated/feared debut on the cagily titled Van Halen III -- get it? -- the group's 12th album. Until now, the essential question for the band's aficionados - "Dave or Sammy?" -- was a relatively simple one; Cherone has turned Van Halen fandom into a multiple choice game. But while it's unlikely that the "Gary camp" will ever grow too large (have you seen what this guy looks like?), the singer may well be the best thing to happen to the band since guitarist Eddie Van Halen discovered effects boxes.
Granted, Cherone's over-emote-from-constricted-throat vocals are less distinctive than either of his predecessors', and his lyrics fall somewhere between less than profound and not quite abysmal. Yet, judging from the renewed intensity of Eddie's guitar playing throughout much of III, having a merely competent, relatively ego-free singer seems to have reinvigorated his muse. The band's last album of all-new material, 1995's enervated-sounding Balance, was saddled with distressingly middle-of-the-road production that favored atmospheric keyboards over Eddie's flashy fretboard work -- a curious misstep, especially considering the guitarist's vaunted reputation as the most innovative ax grinder of his generation. III find Eddie playing like it's 1984 all over again, reeling off squealing, dexterous runs at every turn, bending, shredding, and stretching notes like they were so much sonic Play-Doh.
The legion of guitar nerds who labor to decode Eddie's solos will find plenty here to keep them busy. From the dirty-ass riffing of "Fire in the Hole" and the blues-from-Venus solo that graces the 8 1/2-minute "Year to the Day," to the electric sitar extrapolations of "Primary" and the pungent country picking that caps "Ballot of the Bullet," the emphasis is on gutbucket chops as opposed to the sleek mainstream metal the band has often purveyed. Rockists, take heart: There's no "Jump," no "Right Now," no obvious crossover hit, and good for Van Halen for not trying to rehash past victories (though "One I Want" does recall "Panama," albeit minus Roth's endearingly sleazy sexual innuendos).
Having proved that he's still got the fire in his fingers and his belly, Eddie can't resist almost ruining III with the final track, a ballad so unintentionally hilarious as to nearly eclipse the glow left by the preceding songs. "How Many Say I" is a bit of overearnest hand-wringing about man's inhumanity to man ("Have you ever looked down when the homeless walk by?/Changed the channel when you saw a hungry child?") that features Eddie singing and accompanying himself on piano. Midway through the number -- which sounds like a cross between The Wall-period Pink Floyd and Spi¨al Tap in a Mellow Mood -- the string come in, dragging the already saccharine ditty into diabetic comaland. (Perhaps even more embarrassing than the song itself is the childlike pride Eddie apparently takes in having composed it. "As I sang it, it's like I was outside myself, watching my mouth moving," he gushed in a recent interview.)
Cringeworthy as "How Many Say I" may be, it's no worse than some of the well-intentioned dreck everyone from Townshend to Clapton has fobbed off on occasion -- chalk it up to the curse of newly enlightened guitar heroes. Clean, sober, and in a spiritual frame of mind, Eddie seems primed to lead the reconstituted Van Halen into its third decade. He need remember but one mantra (courtesy of Frank Zappa): "Shut up 'n' play yer guitar." B